Saturday, October 22, 2011

Some sources of information about Daniel Tammet's 2004 recitation of the number Pi


The list of sources below is incomplete. For a more complete list of relevant sources of info about Daniel Tammet and his feats see my new book:

Daniel Tammet: the Boy with the Incredible Story

by Lili Marlene 

at Smashwords

How you can help: NSE events: Pi in the sky. (2004) National Society for Epilepsy.
This link is now dead, but a record of it's content in June 2004 can be accessed through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine
[I believe this piece could have been written before the actual event and left unedited, because it does not actually state the number 22,514 which is supposed to be Tammet's actual record: "A Kent man has succeeded in his attempt to set a new British and European record by using his incredible memory to recall the mathematical constant Pi (3.141...) to over 22,500 decimal places." Another quote from the webpage: “Daniel was part of a research study on prodigious mental ability at London's Institute of Neurology. The data appeared in the new year 2003 edition of the prestigious neuro-scientific magazine 'Nature'.” This certainly would have been the “Routes to Remembering” study by Maguire, Valentine, Wilding and Kapur.]

March, Stefanie (2004) Learn these 500 digits of pi by heart. That is about 2% of what this man can remember. Times, The March 13th 2004 Section: Home news, p.5. Accession number 7EH3642629466.
[I accessed this thru the Australian/New Zealand Reference Centre at EBSCOhost. A breathless article promoting Tammet’s Pi recitation to be held the next day. A quite lengthy and detailed article considering it is about an event not yet performed. A target figure of 22,500 for the number of decimal places expected for Tammet’s Pi recitation is given. There certainly must have been a lot of psychological pressure on Tammet to perform as planned. The venue is given as the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford University. March explains that Tamet’s mnemonic ability is “abnormal” and due to him being “one of only a handful of “acquired savants”” as a result of epilepsy at age 3. Tammet claims to be not autistic, but the journalist claims he exhibits some “symptoms”. There is discussion of Tammet’s supposed peculiarities of thought and behaviour. “Epilepsy and schizophrenia both run in the family.” After this quote there is a description of visual experiences which could be interpreted as schizophrenia hallucinations or as synaesthesia, but which I don’t think are typical of either. Tammet does not appear to like being asked to account for how he does his memory feats: “Because I am not autistic, people expect me to be more accountable than I want to be” “I can no more explain what I can do and the limits of my ability than anyone else. I do not need to prove myself.” At the end of this article is given a link to the National Society for Epilepsy's page about Tammet's Pi recitation:]

New Pi record. (2004) Times, The March 15th 2004. Section: Home news, p. 14.
[No writer is cited for this one paragraph article reporting that “Daniel Tammet smashed the European record for Pi recollection, reciting 22,514 decimals from memory...” It seems odd that the promotional article about this event was much more long and detailed, while the article reporting what actually happened appears to be merely an anonymous afterthought.]

A fair slice of Pi.
(2004) Herald Sun (Melbourne). March 17th 2004
Edition: 1 – First. Section: News, p.7. Accession number: 200403171007282512.
[Writer not named. This report did not even give the exact number of the record: “A REAL life Rain Man said he was exhausted yesterday after counting his way into the record books by reciting the number pi to more than 22,500 decimal places.”]

Lyall, Sarah (2007) Brainman, at Rest in His Oasis. New York Times. February 15th 2007.
[regarding Tammet’s Pi recitation: “The recitation took place at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, lasted five hours and nine minutes and was monitored by students from the department of mathematical sciences at Oxford Brookes University. Mr. Tammet made no mistakes.” Oxford Brookes Uni is apparently a different uni than the University of Oxford, but located close by. The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford is a department of the University of Oxford, so there were apparently two different unis involved in Tammet’s Pi recitation event.]

Pi Memory Feat. (2008) University of Oxford.

Daniel Tammet (accessed 2011) Pi World Ranking List.
["This was long time claimed as a European Record, as Daniel recited 22,514 decimal places. Unfortunately he made his first mistake at postion 2,965 and did not correct this error immediately and without outside help, but only after he was told that there was a mistake."]

Pi Record (2011) Optimnem: Daniel Tammet: the official website.


Anonymous said...

Daniel Tammet got a remarkable amount of press coverage for his pi record attempt. In many ways the record he set was unexceptional. It was only a local record; the world record was nearly twice as high. He only exceeded the previous record by a small margin (15 digits). The previous holder, David Thomas, a fireman who learned memory techniques in his spare time, got nothing like that level of press interest. As for the holder before that, William Robinson, you would struggle to find any trace of his record anywhere other than the world ranking list. Daniel Tammet's record was not a dramatic improvement over the record of just over 20,000 digits set over 20 years earlier by Creighton Carvello, who popularised memory techniques in the UK through TV appearances and record attempts.

That Tammet got so much press coverage owes much, I suspect, to his "real life rain man" story rather than the impressiveness of the feat. From the perspective of how he stacks up against other memorisers, I think that Tammet's world memory championship performances were actually rather more impressive than his pi record. He memorised 1460 digits in an hour, which puts him 25th in the world in a discipline which is fairly hotly contested in the memory world - a genuine achievement.

While it looks impressive for those unfamiliar with what memorisers can do, memorising 22,000 digits of pi in a few months would not be that daunting a challenge for someone who can memorise over a thousand digits in an hour and is willing to put in the time and effort.

Mr Anon

Lili Marlene said...

I would certainly agree that Tammet's most impressive achievements are the ones that have apparently been unknown by most of the scientists and journalists who have written about him. Being a confirmed misanthrope I'm not the least surprised that humanity has once again proven that it is more likely to respond to a highly questionable story told with a showman's flair than a feat of genuine intellectual achievement. The aspect of this matter that really bothers me is the extraordinary degree of credulity and the lack of inquiry and skepticism shown by people who get paid to work as scientists, researchers and academics. As a former student of the philosophy of science at a good university I can state that science is not supposed to work in this way.

Lili Marlene said...

Of course, the question that we must look at now is whether Tammet's Pi record is a genuine record. One source that looks to me like it is authoritative says his Pi recollection only stands at 2,965, which apparently isn't a record. Knowing how adept Tammet has been at manipulating many people into believing his story, and also knowing how lazy and inept many journalists and other authority figures have proven to be many times, I have real doubts that the many media and orgainizational reports that Tammet attained the Pi record of 22,514 decimal places were properly researched and verified. I've found a report by the National Society for Epilepsy and two media reports of the event that don't even bother to give an exact figure for the record attained, which leads me to wonder if these are all reports written before the event based on some press release that no one has bothered to re-check during or after the event. It is a fact that much of what passes for journalism these days is just the re-wording of press releases written by people who have a personal interest in the content of the news report.

Anonymous said...

Personally I don't have too many doubts about the genuineness of Tammet's pi reading feat. It was done in a fairly public environment, with camera crews present, and several people invigilating. A testing company SHL (which does psychological assessments for companies on new employees etc) was also apparently involved, and press releases came out from multiple sources including the University of Oxford and National Society for Epilepsy. There is far more evidence for Tammet's pi record than most other people who have gone for the record (the previous holder David Thomas for example).

The pi world ranking list has a recent claim that he made a mistake, but not further source is given, and it's only a website maintained by an individual; it doesn't represent any kind of recognised organisation. There are no universally accepted rules on an event like this, and It's quite plausible that the invigilators of Tammet's performance were operating to more forgiving rules than the author of the pi world ranking list might like (for example, by allowing Tammet to correct a slipup pointed out by the invigilators).

However, many "mistakes" in a recitation like this are likely to be momentary lapses in concentration or losing his place in the digits rather than having forgotten the right digit. So whether or not it was performed to very strict conditions, I think Tammet's claim to have memorised 22,514 digits of pi is quite credible, and at least as well validated as other holders of the record.

Mr Anon

Lili Marlene said...

If there are no widely accepted rules for this type of record, then that leaves everything a bit up in the air. I definitely think its time to tighten up the rules and procedures, because it is a shame to see such a feat bought into question. If Tammet did go on to recount to 22,514 places with accuracy that is surely going to impress anyone.

I'd be very interested in any information about this event that has as it's origin the "students from the department of mathematical sciences at Oxford Brookes University" who reportedly monitored Tammet's Pi recitation. I guess they could be living anywhere in the world by now.

Lili Marlene said...

I've been reading thru the terrific essay by Ron Doerfer, and I've found an anecdote about some calculation performer that illustrates why I have wondered whether social pressure could have played a part in biasing reporting of Tammet's Pi record:

"...four audience members were brought on stage at the start to verify his answers on calculators. Benjamin did a variety of calculations, most of them correctly, but it’s interesting that despite his turning to them to request verification, two of his five answers in squaring 3-digit numbers were incorrect. But none of the four challenged his
answers, and to be honest, I wouldn’t have had enough confidence that I entered the digits correctly to have held up a show like that either. So don’t trust observers or judges."

Social pressure to not report any problem would surely have been even more acute in the case of a charity event in which the performer was open to sponsorship (donated to the charity) to perform the feat, presumably in a way in which donation is conditional on performance.

Because Tammet apparently chose to omit his pre-name-change WMC achievements from his life story, his Pi record has been seen as his most outstanding achievement. I know I chose to include him in my lists of famous autists and famous synaesthetes on the basis of his Pi record, because I thought that was a solid achievement among all the hype, so to find that this achievement might not be completely genuine has left me feeling that it is a point well worth investigating.

Lili Marlene said...

Sorry, a correction, the author of that quote was Ron Doerfler, author of the book "Dead Reckoning" and this is his blog:

Anonymous said...

I noticed that in the Brainman documentary, Tammet can be heard clearly saying the sequence "399520614". This sequence occurs after 2,909 digits of pi, very shortly before the alleged mistake at position 2,965. That means that it is very likely that the cameras were rolling at the time he got to the 2,965th digit, so whatever happened there was almost certainly known to the makers of the Brainman documentary.

Mr Anon

Lili Marlene said...

That's a lot of numbers to sort thru!